World Environment Day – 5th June 2020

Friday 5 June is World Environment Day, the United Nations day for encouraging worldwide awareness and action to protect our environment. This year the theme is biodiversity.

In recent years climate change and our over-exploitation of the world’s natural resources has been slowly creeping up the agenda. The vulnerability of our environment is increasingly hard to ignore – flooding, wildfires and other extreme weather events are ever more common, while deforestation and habitat destruction continues apace with ever more species pushed towards extinction. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how, for all our sophistication, the fate of humankind is inextricably linked to the natural environment.

As the world turns to science and technology for answers the role of intellectual property has been called into question. Will companies seek to patent solutions and profit form this crisis? What part does intellectual property have to play in this era?

It is illuminating to consider the long-standing patent bargain: public disclosure of an invention in return for a period of protection during which the patent proprietor can exclusively exploit (or license) the invention.
The public policy objective is to stimulate innovation and technological development. The system must provide a reward sufficient to incentivise potential inventors and investors without stifling further progress by unduly restricting the field to others or providing unearned benefits.

In relation to Covid-19, many of the compounds and potential medicines waiting in the wings may exist only because of the research and development paid for by patent protected blockbuster products. Patent licensing schemes can also be deployed to support the development of new supply chains. However, in this crisis the accessibility of any future vaccines and therapies is likely to be key to public confidence in intellectual property rights.

Accessibility is not only in the hands of private industry. A number of checks and balances to the patent system are in place; most obviously the time-limited nature of patent monopolies but also compulsory licenses; licences of right; and crown use rights in the UK that allow any government department or person authorised by a government department to practice a patented invention without the consent of the proprietor. In such exceptional times, governments worldwide may be more willing to use the tools available to them to ensure access to vaccines and therapies in the event they need to.

If the patent bargain remains valid can it be harnessed to tackle the biggest challenges of our time? The problems facing a pandemic struck world with a growing and increasingly demanding population clearly require ever more innovative solutions.

The reward for protecting biodiversity is clear: our natural environment is our richest source of inspiration and we must ensure that it remains so.